Last decade's advance in diversity initiatives has enhanced the Dickinson experience for all
by Sherri Kimmel
October 3, 2011
Joyce Bylander, who arrived at Dickinson in 1998 as associate dean of students, notes that at that time, “the number of U.S. students of color, U.S. nonwhite students, was very low.”
In mid-July, Senior Editor Sherri Kimmel spoke with Joyce Bylander, special assistant to the president for institutional and diversity initiatives, about the changing landscape at Dickinson. Following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Joyce, can you define diversity? I think we often think of racial diversity, but what are some other types of diversity?
We are talking about identity issues, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity but also about regional differences and cultural differences, international differences, religious differences. So we are talking about all of the ways in which we have come to the world with certain attributes and through our own individual, family and cultural experiences, we’ve all had other markers kind of layered on top of us, and so all of us are part of the diversity picture at Dickinson.
Since you came here in 1998, how would you say the college has changed regarding the diversity of the student body?
The student body when I came had not been visibly diverse. By that, I mean the number of U.S. students of color, U.S. nonwhite students, was very low. It was about 3.9 percent of the population and had been so for many, many years. And when I came, people said that that was because it was so hard to get people to come to Carlisle, and I challenged that, because Carlisle is a wonderful place. We had a leadership change [in 1999] that really made visible diversity an important characteristic of the community. Early on, Mark Neustadt, the person who was helping us with marketing and image, developed catch phrases—reflecting America and engaging the world. Engaging the world stuck, but we couldn’t use reflecting America, because we didn’t believe we reflected America at the time. We could use reflecting America and engaging the world now, because we do both. And that I think is the most significant change in the last 10 years. In the last six years we have exponentially increased the number of international students and U.S. students of color, U.S. nonwhite students. We have consistently averaged between 20 to 23 percent. That is significant. And so we are visibly more diverse on campus and that diversity, in all of its forms, has enriched the campus community a great deal.
You have mentioned that the capital campaign, First in America, has enhanced diversity initiatives here at the college. Can you tell me some ways in which that has happened?
The three main pillars of the campaign were science facilities, scholarships and faculty. And diversity was enhanced in all of those arenas, because the new science building attracts a wide variety of students that had not been looking at us before. Those students add to the diversity picture of Dickinson because that is a world-class facility, and it calls to students and parents and prospectives from a wide geographical range, and that’s an important piece for us. In addition to that, scholarships have made a significant difference in increasing the affordability and access for students, and so it has helped to increase our socioeconomic diversity. Any deserving student who wants a Dickinson education can have access to that education because of the generosity of donors, and specifically we’ve had donors fund our Posse Program scholars, and that has been a really important piece of what’s helped drive the increase in diversity at Dickinson.
Can you give me a capsule definition of Posse?
The Posse Foundation recruits urban students from all over the country and sends them to highly selective colleges and universities all over the country. The two most important components for retention in higher education are a group of supportive peers and a caring adult, and the Posse Foundation simply has codified that so that students go in cohorts of at least 10 but not more than 12, and there is a mentor assigned to those students and that mentor stays with them for the first two years. The Posse Foundation has been a catalyst for increasing diversity, because one of the most important factors for having diversity at a campus is critical mass. It’s kind of a Catch-22. You have to be diverse to be diverse. And so Posse helped us jumpstart diversity and helped us get to critical mass, which is some magical number that no one can define, but you can feel it. It’s important that students see themselves reflected back when they’re visiting. Then they can imagine themselves in this place.
I also believe the campaign has helped bring better diversity into the curriculum. Can you talk about some of the donors and the funds that have helped with that?
Yes, especially the donors and funds that have helped us with endowed chairs but particularly the Africana-studies chair; it helped establish that department for us. We’ve seen Middle East studies come up during this period, some increases in Judaic studies, a chair in Judaic studies, the Asbell Center [for Jewish Life] and also recruitment of Jewish students from South America. All of these things have really helped increase the diversity picture. And in terms of scholarships, there has been no one more generous or more responsible for that increase than Sam Rose [’58], because he funds students from all over the mid-Atlantic. That has been a significant contribution to our diversity picture.
And the Rose scholars, are these students of color?
These are students from all socioeconomic groups and all races and ethnicities, and so it’s a full spectrum of students who have really added to the diversity of Dickinson, and it has been wonderful.
The campaign is entering the next phase. Do you anticipate that this will also give diversity efforts a boost?
I think it will. In order to maintain our momentum we’re going to have to continue to attract and retain diverse students and attract and retain diverse faculty and staff. And the richer the community is in terms of diversity, the more attractive we are to the people that we want to have come to us. But Dickinson is an expensive education. To be open to all students who qualify for this education, we have to have donors who are willing to support that open access. I know we are going to continue to ask for that, and I know we will continue to think about ways to increase support for faculty. With their research and their energy and commitment to students, faculty really help make this place exciting. Students come to college to get an education, and so the more we have strong faculty and endowed chairs and other support for faculty research and scholarship, it really will help us.
You mentioned that the student-body diversity has greatly increased since you came here in 1998. How about faculty and staff?
Faculty and staff have been a bigger challenge, and that’s true for all colleges and universities, because the pool is even smaller, and we’re all competing for that pool. But we clearly have increased the diversity of the faculty and the staff in these last 10 years. That again was about leadership and commitment on the part of the provost and his willingness to work with departments to use carrots and sticks sometimes to get departments to use the best possible search methods, to make sure that they had the most diverse pools that they could get and then to look at the candidates in that pool and to consider diverse candidates.
Let’s talk a little bit about Strategic Plan III. It mentions the need to further enhance diversity in the student body. What are some of the key initiatives in that plan that you think are going to assist the college in gaining more representation?
We’re specifically going to continue the work that we’ve done with community-based organizations—local organizations that typically work with youth in their community and have the best knowledge of young people in their community. There are some organizations that have nurtured students from eighth grade on, and we want to have better connections with those organizations so that we have inroads. We’re going to continue to recruit internationally and to intensify our reach into certain markets. And in addition to that, we’re going to continue to work with students who come to us, perhaps through nontraditional means. We call them nontraditional, but they may be turning out to be the traditional routes as economics change. Lots of students are going to two-year colleges first and then coming to a four-year college. We started our community-college partnerships several years ago, and those will continue to be really important for us, because as families try and figure out how they’re going to afford the best possible education for their sons and daughters, this is clearly going to be a route that they’re considering. And so our community-college partnerships will also be very important to us, I think, as we move into this next phase of our strategic plan and recruitment and diversity initiatives.
What do you see as the greatest challenges in achieving greater diversity here at Dickinson?
Probably it’s money and perception, and I’m not sure what order that goes in. In order to help more families see that a Dickinson education is possible, we have to have resources that will support access. If we want Dickinson to be affordable to anyone who is qualified to receive this education, then we have to have scholarships. We have to have money to support the people who we will be attracting. There are lots of new high schools that we’re recruiting in now. Their former students thrived at Dickinson, and they’ve gone off to graduate school and medical school, and they’re just doing amazing things. When guidance counselors in schools see that, then they want that for their other students, and so we are on lots of people’s radar now. And we need some people who don’t know us to know us better, to perceive themselves capable of coming here, and then we need money to support those students who now long for a Dickinson education.
If we look at students who are more in the majority status, is diversity something that they would like to see here?
It’s the thing that makes me happiest about the work that I’ve been able to do at Dickinson since 1998. In those early years, the white students and families were talking about how this place is wonderful. But those families knew that this was not a complete educational experience because most of them had had more diverse experiences in their high schools than they saw at Dickinson when they came in the late ’90s and early 2000s. But we also have students who come from places that are not very diverse. I think about a young woman from a small town in Ohio who said that she came to Dickinson, and it was the most diverse place she had ever been—that she met her first Jewish student here and her first black student here and her first everyone here. And the other day an alum was here who’s from Maine, and he said that coming to Dickinson was a crucial piece of his education, because Dickinson challenged him to understand diversity in ways that he never thought about it in Maine. He said it was his Dickinson education that exposed him to people from all walks of life. He credits Dickinson College with making that happen for him, and he’s really proud of that.
That’s great. Anything else you would like to say on the topic?
Just that I really am proud of the way that this campus has moved forward. It’s leadership that makes this happen—leadership and commitment from everyone. And we’ve had that from the Board of Trustees down to the students and the staff. We have diversity workshops in our professional-development training for faculty and staff, and we talk about difference on campus, and we talk about how you need to interact with one another. We talk about how to engage across our own differences to connect with other people. But at the end of the day, we talk also about understanding that human beings are more alike than they are different, and that it is that common ground that makes all of us stronger and makes this campus stronger and will ultimately make the world stronger. I’m really proud of the work that we do here and the commitment that we have to this work to really provide a world-class education for all of the members of this community around this important value. We live in a diverse world, and we have to operate in that world in ways that are comfortable and smart. And I think we work to make that happen here.